BOASTING SUCH AFRICAN ICONS as the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Mt Kilimanjaro, and teeming with wildlife, Tanzania East is a wildlife aficionado’s dream destination.
With all the terrestrial abundance on view, it’s easy to overlook the country’s undersea attractions, but the warm waters fringing its coastline are home to some of the most spectacular reefs in all of East Africa.
Separated from the mainland by the deep, cold waters of the Pemba Channel, the island of Pemba is one of the jewels in Tanzania’s diving crown. The island, along with neighbouring Unguja (the main island, informally referred to as Zanzibar) and a host of smaller islands comprises Zanzibar, a separate state within the United Republic of Tanzania.
Known as Al Jazeera Al Khadra (the green island, in Arabic), Pemba was first settled by Omani traders at the start of the 10th century.
While the main island receives the lion’s share of tourists, Pemba’s pace remains refreshingly languid.
The fertile countryside is a patchwork of fertile valleys and forests interspersed with rolling hills of verdant green. Coconut palms dominate the landscape, along with mango, breadfruit, banana and no fewer than 3 million clove trees – cloves are the island’s dominant source of income.
From the international gateway of Dar es Saalam, you take a couple of short flights to the island of Pemba.

MY HOME FOR THE WEEK was Kervan Saray Beach Resort on the north-west coast. Run in conjunction with Swahili Divers, the operation is owned by Raf and Cisca Jah.
Swahili Divers was established in 1999 in the town of Chake Chake, and moved to the newly built Kervan Saray Beach Resort four years ago.
Accommodation is in simple but comfortable bungalows with spacious four-poster beds draped with mosquito netting. The outdoor bathrooms have showers that use solar-heated water.
Electricity is available by generator only from 6pm to 6am in the rooms, and in the office during the day.
Guests can use the bank of plugs in the office to recharge laptops, satellite phones and digital cameras. The Internet is available via satellite.
The resort is involved in the local community, and even has its own fire engine, a 1950s Green Goddess shipped from the UK.
Pemba’s north-west coast is dominated by a series of barrier islands separated by three passages: Ngao, Fundo and Uvingi. At high tide, large volumes of water flush through these, bringing in both predators and prey.
The nourishing waters, coupled with an absence of environmentally destructive coastal development, ensure that the reefs are diverse and thriving.
The local fishermen are, as Raf puts it, “generally and happily inept”, ensuring that fish populations remain abundant.
After a day of rest to recover from my long trip, I was eager to get into the water. Not too eager, however. At high tide, the exposed shoreline is a swathe of jagged, exposed limestone.
The still-wet surface called for cautious negotiation, as the copious razor-sharp points looked decidedly incompatible with both knees and camera gear.
Swiss Reef lies 10 minutes away if you use the resort’s Tornado RIB. With an historic century-old lighthouse as a backdrop, we quickly kitted up and rolled back into the warm, clear waters.
Within moments of descending a powerful current kicked in, hurling our group over a succession of undulating ridges rising from the seabed.
Unfazed by the current, legions of colourful reef fish darted among abundant tubastrea corals.
I soon realised that photography was a lost cause, so I simply enjoyed the thrill of the dive. Just before the end, a large bommie offered enough respite from the raging current to allow me
to stop and photograph a large school of yellow sweepers sheltering under a rocky overhang.
The nearest passage to the resort is Ngao Gap, again 10 minutes from the resort. Situated virtually side by side, End of the World and DF Malan featured sheer drop-offs with immaculate coral gardens in the shallows.
Unblemished and unbroken, extensive stands of cabbage corals shrouded the reef tops, stacked atop one another like tiers of a marine wedding cake. Delicate table corals sprouted from numerous coral bommies, along with a plethora of sponges, anemones and bubble corals.
A bit more challenging was Rudy’s Wall, situated right at the gap’s entrance. According to Raf, this site is not dived very often because of the strong currents that converge here.

ONE DAY WE LUCKED OUT, arriving right on the verge of slack tide. The surface chop was fierce as we entered the water, and it took some effort to descend the mooring line.
But it was well worth it. The walls were adorned with luxuriant fan corals in pastel hues of pink, orange and red.
Nearby was Emilio’s Back Passage, featuring a gigantic fissure hewn into the sheer vertical wall. Many divers could fit into it at once, with room to spare.
Over the week, Raf guided me to many incomparable sites, wall and drift dives being the order of the day.
With Swahili Divers virtually the only game in town, we had these sites
to ourselves. We would do two or three dives a day, passing our surface intervals on one of the powder-white beaches, eating freshly made biscuits and washing them down with spicy Zanzibari-style tea or coffee.
A bit further afield lay Fundo Gap.
If anything, the sites here proved even more spectacular. Manta Point featured a wall descending to 28m, with the reef top at 6-8m depending on the tide. Alas, the congregations of mantas that used to frequent the area are long gone, the unfortunate victims of over-fishing.
Nevertheless, this site boasted a tremendous variety of hard corals and abundant fish life. Deep Freeze gets its name from the cold upwellings surging up from the depths. My borrowed 5mm suit came in useful here!
Yellow fan corals adorned the precipitous drops-offs, while schools of yellowtail fusiliers and snappers congregated in the blue just off the wall.
Although I missed them on my dive, large schools of jack and barracuda are routinely encountered at the site’s current-swept point.
A trio of hefty Napoleon wrasse did put in an appearance, although they proved just as allergic to cameras as their Pacific cousins!

MY PREVIOUS DIVING EXPERIENCE was mainly in the Asia-Pacific region, so one of the pleasures of Pemba was in observing the variety of unfamiliar fish species. Along with such recognisable species as Moorish idols, coral trout, oriental sweetlips and emperor angelfish came a lot of Indian Ocean specialities.
After one dive, I asked what the powder-blue surgeonfish was, only to discover that it actually was a powder-blue surgeonfish!
Other colourful residents included Alland’s anemonefish, ring-eyed hawkfish, lyretail hogfish and an exquisite Indian sand wrasse, its vivid red body accented with white spots encircled with black.
Pemba is also home to some monstrous titan triggerfish. I’m just grateful that none of them exhibited aggressive behaviour.
For my last full day of diving, Raf had something special planned – a full-day excursion to Misali Island.
All week long, I had been salivating as I heard strings of superlatives used to describe Misali’s undersea treasures. Along with Raf and two staff-members, there were nine divers on board for the 45-minute trip.
As it turned out, our destination was not Misali itself but a small island called Kashani, situated past the Uvingi Gap. We were going to be treated to a special place known only to Raf and his divemaster Mohammed.
This takes the prize for the most unlikely name for a dive site I’ve come across: Slobodan’s Bunker. It turns out that Raf discovered the site the day Serbian presidential fugitive Slobodan Milosovic was apprehended.
We arrived at the tail-end of the slack tide, so everyone had to gear up quickly. The word “bunker” might conjure visions of drabness, but Slobodan’s was anything but. I was spellbound by a site of staggering diversity that rivalled some of the best I have seen in Asia.
Resembling the knuckle of a hand with fingers outstretched, it was bursting with life. Vast swarms of basslets cavorted off walls shrouded with luxurious coral growth. Tubastrea, whip, table and soft corals jostled for space, along with tube and barrel sponges.
A school of blackspotted sweetlips hovered above one large tubastrea, joined by bronze soldierfish and blood-spot squirrelfish. Nearby, a large map puffer waited patiently as a cleaner wrasse performed its duties.

ON HEARING SOME FRANTIC tank-banging, I spun around to see a large Napoleon wrasse. Moments later, a school of five swam by further below, with one of the divers in pursuit.
The male fish leading the entourage was by far the largest I have seen, with a gigantic, humped forehead.
I started to follow until I checked my computer; I was already at 26m. It was then that I realised that the visibility was easily 40m! I thought it would be a good idea to ascend to shallower water but I could easily have spent the day there.
Our final dive was at Atta Turk, just off Uvingi Island. This time I was set up for macro, and two-band clownfish, porcelain crabs, pipefish, fire dartfish, flatworms and a host of other critters kept my shutter clicking.
The highlight was an exquisite nudibranch with a semi-transparent white body etched with a patchwork of yellow lines.
Diving Pemba was a unique and memorable introduction to Africa.
The only thing lacking was hordes of divers and some Napoleon wrasse photos, though the latter will be remedied.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Dar es Salaam is serviced by a number of international airlines, including Emirates, BA, KLM, Swissair, South African, Kenya Airways and Air Tanzania. From Dar es Salaam, catch short hopper flights to Pemba via Zanzibar with Coastal Aviation (www.coastal.cc) or Zanair (www.zanair.com). Visas can be obtained on arrival for US $50 cash, or buy one for £38 in advance.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Kervan Saray Beach Resort/Swahili Divers, www.kervansarayafrica.com, www.swahilidivers.com
WHEN TO GO: Diving is possible year-round, but the best time is during the dry season from late October to early March, with calm seas and good visibility. The cool season lasts from July-September.
LANGUAGE: KiSwahili. English is widely spoken on Zanzibar, but not on Pemba
HEALTH: Take anti-malarials and lots of insect repellent.
MONEY: Tanzanian Shilling (TZS)
PRICES:Kervan Saray/Swahili Divers can offer dive packages for six nights’ full-board accommodation with five days’ diving from £794. Dive and mainland safari packages start at £2400, including all transport and meals in Tanzania.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.tanzania-online.gov.uk